April 5, 2010

Column: Gentle 'Giant' brings a little hope to Haiti

Imagine for a moment what it would be like to lose everything.

Your house, possessions and maybe entire family, all gone. Your friends scattered, the neighborhood obliterated, the city in ruins. Your culture, sense of being and identity all stripped away.

University of Alabama guard Barrett Jones doesn't have to imagine it. He went and saw it in Haiti during spring break.

"Big piles of rocks and broken buildings all across the country," he said of the images that will never leave his mind.

Nearly a month after Jones revealed to reporters his intent to spend a week where a massive earthquake struck one of the poorest and least-developed countries in the world on Jan. 12, the 6-foot-4, 301-pound sophomore recently came back and reflected upon what it was like.

The visit to the decimated capitol Port-au-Prince. The seemingly endless tents. Trying to do something, anything to help scores of people with nothing.

"Just what an experience it was, something I'll never forget for the rest of my life," Jones said.

The trip was set up through Eikon Ministries, located in his hometown of Memphis, for Jones, walk-on wide receiver Hardie Buck and friend James Gannon to travel alongside executive director Roy "Soup" Campbell, who had already made similar relief visits to Haiti.

Each had to raise roughly $2,000 to meet expenses and then any extra money went toward helping Campbell feed people.

"He plays in the trenches for the University of Alabama," said Campbell, himself a former baseball player for Memphis State. "He got into the trenches on a different level."

They flew into the Dominican Republic, which was followed by an 11-hour drive in the back of a truck, and had to wear masks to protect them from the dust.

"The most treacherous road you can imagine," Campbell said.

Their destination was Pignon, about 80 miles from Port-au-Prince in the heart of the country, which had essentially become a refugee camp.

"The tent cities, people just living in fields and in tents, really put it into perspective with me as far as we have so much here," Jones said. "Almost all Americans have a roof over their heads. There are millions of people in Haiti who don't have that."

Jones did, using a sleeping bag on a piece of plywood in something that resembled a shed.

As for plumbing: "There was one bathroom they let the missionaries use that didn't have some sort of flushing abilities," he said. "You only used it for certain purposes, if you know what I mean."

They couldn't drink the water (it's not recommended for visitors), but had small pouches they carried and the main diet was rice, beans and goat meat. Because he didn't want to lose weight during the middle of spring football practices Jones brought a supply of protein bars, to which his mother jokes he's the only person to go to Haiti and gain weight.

"We did a lot of different things," Jones said. "First of all we built showers the first couple of days. We dug the holes and the Haitian surface is a lot harder than the average American soil. It was extremely hard to dig and it's so dry there. It wasn't easy.

"We also spent time with orphans, kids who lost their parents in the earthquake and have no place to go."

That may have been the most important thing the three did during the entire trip, just rubbing shoulders. Most had lost someone and they drew pictures of people being decapitated and crushed under buildings.

"There were sitting around them like he was a big polar bear," Campbell said.

"Word traveled fast that I was only 19, and everyone was like 'There's no way,'" Jones said. "They kept calling me some word that meant 'Giant.' I heard a couple of kids call me 'Goliath,' so that was funny."

Naturally, Jones' size drew constant attention and Campbell teased that people would see him coming and hide their goats. Few wanted to get in his way during a soccer game in which the Americans played the Haitians and most of the camp turned out to cheer both sides.

"You would think it was the Olympics," Campbell said.

They played the card game Uno, sent daily messages home that they were okay and even taught some of the kids to yell "Roll Tide!"

"I think Barrett made a tremendous sacrifice and showed what kind of person he is in how he's willing to sacrifice his spring break to go to Haiti," Coach Nick Saban said. "He was very touched and moved, and (he) said it sure does make you appreciate what we have relative to what we take for granted, and relative to how people have to live in other parts of the world, especially after that tragedy.

"It was a wonderful experience for him, he really enjoyed it. I think there is a lot to learn for the rest of our team to have compassion for other people, to be able to give back in so many ways, how much self-gratification you can get from doing things like that."

Mostly, though, they brought some smiles to a place in desperate need of them.

"They can go with me anywhere," Campbell said.


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